VELIZH , city in Smolensk district, Russia. A *blood libel which stirred up Russian Jewry during the first decade of the reign of Nicholas i (1825–55) took place there. In 1817 the czar, Alexander i, issued an edict according to which Jews were not to be accused of the murder of Christians "merely upon the basis of the ancient tradition that they required Christian blood": in each particular case an investigation of the murder was to be conducted according to those rules which applied to an accused of another religion. Six years later a blood libel occurred in the district town of Velizh (then in the province of Vitebsk). In April 1823 the stabbed body of the three-year-old child Feodor, who had disappeared three days before from the house of his parents, was found near the town. Rumors were immediately spread through the town that the child had been assassinated by the Jews for their Passover requirements. A drunken prostitute, Maria Terentyeva, testified that on the day of his disappearance she had seen the child being led away by a Jewish woman. The local tribunal decided that although the investigation had not revealed any conclusive proof against the Jews who were suspected of the murder, it was nevertheless to be assumed that they had perpetrated it "out of their hostile attitude toward the Christians." The verdict was then referred to the provincial tribunal in Vitebsk, which decreed that the accused were to be acquitted of all suspicion and that the witness Terentyeva was to receive an ecclesiastic penalty for the sin of "leading a life of prostitution." The tribunal also ordered a new investigation into the murder. but it did not produce any results.
Nevertheless, groups of antisemites in the town, who were headed by several Uniate clergymen and were supported by the chief governor of Belorussia, Count Khovanski, continued to stir up the blood libel. In the autumn of 1825, when Alexander i passed through the town, Terentyeva submitted a complaint to him against the local authorities, who had not brought the murderers of her son [sic], the child Feodor, to justice. Ignoring his edict of 1817, the czar ordered the chief governor Khovanski to reopen the investigation. One of Khovanski's officials, Strakhov, was sent to Velizh for this purpose. Terentyeva was arrested, and on this occasion she related that she herself had brought the child to the houses of the Jews, Zeitlin and Berlin, and had been present in the synagogue when he was put to death after having undergone much torture. His blood was then poured into barrels which were transported to Vitebsk and Liozno. Two Christian maids who, according to her words, had participated in these acts were arrested and also "interrogated." On the strength of their evidence over 40 of the Jews of the town were arrested. In August 1826 it was decreed (from above) that all the Velizh synagogues were to be closed because "the Jews abused the tolerance which was shown to their religion." The investigators then began to search for proof of the actual existence of a custom among the Jews to murder Christian children. They collected material and testimonies which had been deposited on the occasion of previous blood libels in Poland and Russia; they found several apostates, one of whom – Grodzinski – brought a Hebrew manuscript before the commission of inquiry which, according to his words, described the ceremony that accompanied the execution of Christian children. At the same time, Terentyeva and the Christian maids testified that they had also participated in the murders of other Christian children.
The czar himself, who received reports on the progress of the investigation, then began to doubt the truth of the charge. He ordered an inquiry to determine who the other children were who had been murdered ("It can easily be clarified whether or not a despicable lie is present"). It rapidly became obvious that there was no foundation to the new libel and that the manuscript which was "discovered" by Grodzinski dealt with the ritual slaughter of animals and poultry. Grodzinski was ordered by the court to serve in the military, and in 1830 the investigation was handed over to the Senate. In the Senate there were divergences of opinion as to the actual accusation which was brought against the Jews and the guilt of the Jews who had been arrested. The deputy minister of justice, Panin, who was responsible for the analysis of the material concerning the accusation, declared that from a legal point of view there was no reason to accuse the Jews of Velizh and he called for their immediate release.
The first decision was then placed in the hands of the State Council. The Jews were defended by the head of the department for civil and religious affairs, Admiral N. Mordvinov, who, as the owner of estates in the surroundings of Velizh, was well acquainted with the Jews of the town and their way of life. In his memorandum to the State Council, Mordvinov declared that the trial of the Jews of Velizh was a premeditated conspiracy led by Count Khovanski, and that the testimony which had been deposited by Terentyeva and her colleagues had not been given of their own free will but "as a result of a powerful influence." In January 1835 the State Council ordered the release and exoneration of the accused Jews. Terentyeva and her colleagues were sentenced to exile in Siberia on the charge of libel. Mordvinov's proposal to indemnify the Jews for their sufferings was rejected. Four of the arrested died during their nine years of imprisonment.
The trial of Velizh revived the belief in ritual murder among the Christian masses. When he ratified the final verdict, Nicholas i himself commented that he was not convinced that the Jews had not committed the murder. In his opinion, "there are religious fanatics or sectarians among the Jews who required Christian blood for their ceremonies." Accordingly, the czar refused to renew the edict of 1817, and blood libels remained one of the instruments of agitation against the Jews until the abolition of the czarist regime (see also *Blood Libel).
In the 1880s the Jewish community had a synagogue, as well as seven houses of prayer. A state Jewish school was opened in 1883, and a private Jewish boys' school in the early 1900s. During the Soviet regime, the Jewish population dropped from 3,274 in 1926 to 1,788 in 1939.
In July of 1941 the Germans captured the city and relegated the Jews to a camp under a Judenrat. In November they sent 1,000 Jews from Velizh and its environs to a ghetto, which they torched in January of 1942, killing the hundreds who were inside and shooting anyone who tried to flee. Twenty managed to escape.
Yu. Hessen, Velizhskaya drama (1906); Dubnow, Divrei, 9 (19586), 113–6; R. Mahler, Divrei Am Yisrael, Dorot Aḥaronim, 2 bk. 1 (1970), 68–74. add. bibliography: Jewish Life, 1382.
[Yehuda Slutsky /
Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]